With the exception of the Family Christmas Flu of 2002, I haven’t stopped to appreciate the toilet much in my life. However, Dr. Richard Alley’s presentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota on October 6th really made me think about toilets – and the waste we flush – like I never had before.
Courtesy Evelyn Simak
Today, we can’t imagine living without toilets or indoor plumbing, especially in populated areas for extended periods of time. Gone are the days of the chamber pot, the daily hurling of human waste from your window into the street below, and the pervasive stench that resulted.
It’s really incredible to think about how society went from chamber pots to toilets. I mean, there is a HUGE amount of technology development, public policy, and civil engineering involved in the invention, installation, and maintenance of plumbing infrastructure. (You never thought about it either, did you?) You have to invent the plumbing fixtures, convince the government and the public that it’s a necessity, perfect the manufacturing process, install miles of underground pipes, build collection and treatment plants, and continually upkeep the entire system.
The daunting obstacles must have made indoor plumbing seem virtually impossible back in the day, but we did it anyway, which raises two really great questions: How and why?
How we made the switch from chamber pots to toilets is less important than why we made the switch because we probably wouldn’t have bothered to figured out how if we didn’t have a dang good reason why to put in all the effort. Like grandma says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Courtesy 13th Street Studio
We put in the effort to move towards toilets because we realized we couldn’t keep living with chamber pots. Chamber pots were unsightly, smelly, and really bad for public health. After we became convinced of the necessity of toilets, we figured out how to do it and we even put up with the disruption their adoption created. A few generations later and we can’t imagine living any other way.
Dr. Alley says we’re now on the cusp of our own epic Chamber-Pot-to-Toilet story.
Today, we can’t imagine living without fossil fuels as an energy source, but our grandchildren might not be able to imagine what it’s like living without renewable energy. Chamber pots and excrement are like fossil fuels and pollution: unsightly, smelly, and bad for public health. Hopefully, like with toilets, we’ll eventually realize we can’t keep living in our own filth and we’ll find a way to widely adopt renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.
According to Dr. Alley’s presentation, we already have the technology to capture enough renewable energy to cover the world’s current energy usage (15.7 terawatts) with some to spare, and the amount of renewable energy available for capture in the future is simply staggering. That means we should also be able to serve populations that do not currently have energy access and provide energy for our future's growing global population – all sustainably! Sure the technology development, public policy, and civil engineering involved in switching to a new energy system is daunting, but it can't be much longer until we realize it's a necessity worth the effort.
You can watch segments of Earth: The Operator’s Manual online (including Dr. Alley's 30 second introduction of himself, check out 1:23-1:53) and even read the annotated script. Segment 9 of Chapter 3 (beginning at page 98 of the annotated script), Towards a Sustainable Future, covers the details of which renewable energy sources we could use to create a global sustainable energy portfolio.
Who’da thunk it? But you can mine sand. Not just for beaches, but for hydrofracking (or 'hydraulic fracturing').
[Side bar: Hydrofracking is a method of squeezing natural gas from certain special rocks. It’s expensive and has environmental consequences, but increasing demand coupled with oil and gas prices being what they are (high!) we’ll be hearing a lot more about the extraction technique. This Strib article calls silica sand "the new gold."]
And… back to sand mining. Silica sand is used by drillers in hydrofracking. According to this blog post, Red Wing, MN is primo silica sand mining land, so it’s no wonder Windsor Permian, a Texas drilling company, wants in.
A sand mining pit could create a lot of local jobs. Or it could cause lung diseases, including cancer, in the local population. Or both. Or neither.
Yikes. What’s a person to think? On the one hand, people need jobs and affordable energy. On the other hand, the very same people need good health and a stable environment.
As the global population rises in absolute size and affluence, we’ll face more difficult decisions like this one. Looking for solutions that benefit both people and the environment will characterize the future of life on Earth.
You've probably heard that we (the Earth's 7 billion humans) are headed towards a global population of 9,000,000,000 (billion!) people. And because you're smart, you've probably wondered how we're going to feed the extra 2 billion future folk.
When we're not great at feeding the current population...
... it's hard to imagine throwing another 2 billion human beings in the mix is going to make the whole situation much better.
Thankfully, a bunch of smart peeps are looking into a solution to the world's food problem, including this guy Jon Foley and his team. They argue that there isn't one silver bullet solution. Instead, they're looking for the "silver buckshot" solutionS. Neat idea, right?
Check out this TEDxTC video of Jon sharing his thoughts on the matter:
If you have six minutes of your day to spare, watching this video clip is a great way to spend it:
"The New York Department of Environmental Protection installed a prototype "algal turf scrubber" at once of its wastewater treatment plants in Queens. The scrubber--two 350-foot metal ramps coated with algae that grows naturally--is designed to use algae to remove nutrients and boost dissolved oxygen in the water that passes through it. John McLaughlin, Director of Ecological Services for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and Peter May, restoration ecologist for Biohabitats, explain how the scrubber works, and where the harvested algae goes."
Here on good ol' Planet Earth, the human population is growing and boy are folks hungry. By 2050, there should be 9 billion of us running around, but Earth isn't getting any bigger and we probably don't want to try farming on the moon. On the Buzz, we've read about some plants that have been modified to resist drought and tough climates, but what about the wisdom of the ancient Andeans?
Courtesy David Almeida
No, no, not that wisdom, delicious as it is. I'm talking about Andean farmers. These guys are reviving tough heirloom potatoes, clever terraces, and Incan irrigation systems. The species and systems had been used for thousands of years, and were probably adapted to the uncertainties of agriculture in the high mountains.
But when Spaniards showed up a few centuries ago with their own methods, traditional ways slowly fell out of use even though they were better suited to the region's need. Now that farmers are rediscovering the benefits of these ancient traditions, they're hoping these methods can help hungry folks in other parts of the world, too. Now that's a wisdom I can sink my teeth into!
Courtesy Mila ZonkovaAm I right? Alligator powered trucks? Like, big ol’ trucks with alligators trotting along on treadmills? Or harnessed like vertically challenged oxen? Or with their feet sticking through the floor of the trucks, running all Flintstones-style?
Oh, wait, none of those things. Ha ha ha. My bad. Alligators will actually power trucks by being rendered into diesel fuel. Laugh out loud.
Or, at any rate, alligators could be rendered into truck-powering diesel fuel. There aren’t necessarily any plans to do so.
The idea to render alligators came from a recent study authored by researchers form the University of Louisiana and published in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research. Most of the 700 billion gallons of biodiesel produced in this country each year come from soybean oil. As we increase production of biodiesel (we consume 45 billion gallons of diesel every year), some people are concerned that using soy as a feedstock will cause the price of food to increase, so scientists are on the lookout for alternative products to use for biodiesel. Alligator fat, it turns out, is pretty nicely suited to be turned into diesel—it has the right chemical composition, and requires less processing than many other feedstocks.
Are alligators taking the place of 19th century sperm whales as a living source of fuel oil, you ask? When does the scouring of the swamps begin? Weeeeell, sort of never. I know you’d like to go make your fortune by hunting alligators for their sweet, sweet fat, but the study is only proposing using fat from existing alligator farming and hunting operations. Apparently, the alligator meat industry disposes of about 15 million pounds of alligator fat every year. While processing that quantity would only make a very small dent in current biodiesel production, it’s still much more efficient than dumping it in landfills. And it’s much more hilarious.
What a bleak two years those were, eh? In that time you’ve probably been married and impregnated, and then birthed a really boring baby. What did you name it? “Dullton”? “Cloudface”? “Eeyore”? Or could you not even think of a name, because everything has just seemed so boring and pointless?
You know what? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ve just been so preoccupied in the last couple years, what with the economy being so bad and all. I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep my horseracing operation financially feasible. But I think I’ve finally figured it out—whenever one of my horses looses a race, I have to stop setting them free in the woods. Or, if I really need to get that loser out of my sight, I’ve got to at least sell it to a glue factory or restaurant. (Sure, get all self-righteous. You’ve clearly never eaten horsemeat, or stuck two pieces of paper together with horseglue. Unparalleled experiences.)
So the Extravaganza is back! At least as a limited edition. I was so excited to do it, I couldn’t even wait for the usual Friday post. And so a Wednesday Extravaganza it is! A Food Extravaganza! A Foodstravaganza!
You may be aware that the Science Museum will soon be opening an exhibit called Future Earth, which explores how the many billions of us humans will get by in the coming decades. You might also be aware that food is going to be a big deal in our future (there will be more of us, and we’ll be eating more stuff that takes more resources to produce), and so, as both a Future Earth worker bee and a consumer of food, a couple of stories caught my eye this week.
Whoops! A little background information: agriculture isn’t screwing us over—it’s keeping us from starving. However, in our effort to keep ourselves from starving (a noble goal!) we’ve converted about 40% of the land surface of the Earth into cropland and pastureland, and not all of that is sustainable. I don’t mean that in the “cute animals have nowhere to live” way, I mean it in the “we weren’t always careful, and have caused tremendous environmental degradation” way. When farming practices allow topsoil to be stripped of nutrients, or erode too extensively, or contaminate water sources, it’s bad news. But at least we aren’t the first people to have done it. According to some recent archaeological work, ancient Peruvians were up to the same tricks. By looking at the ancient trash pits and the buried plant remains in the desolate-looking Ica region of Peru, archaeologists found that the area’s residents originally survived by gathering shellfish and the like from the coast, but eventually transitioned to an intensive agricultural lifestyle—that is, they cleared a lot of land, and grew a lot of food. They grew corn, beans, pumpkins, peanuts, and chillis for hundreds of years, and all was well. Until it wasn’t. It looks like they cleared too much of the natural plant life, and flooding, erosion, and nutrient depletion became problems (the natural trees and shrubs fixed nitrogen nutrients in the soil and held dirt and moisture in place in a way that the crops couldn’t.) The whole area went to pot, and the locals had to go back to eating snails, mussels and sea urchins again. Aw, nuts.
So what could they have done? For that matter, what can we do, if it looks like our conventional food sources can’t sustain a human population which will rapidly exceed 7 billion?
That brings me to my next story! Oh, good!
You know what everybody likes? Animal protein, also known as “meat.” The problem there is that animal protein requires animals to produce it, and not all animals make it very efficiently—a cow, for instance, eats about 30 pounds of cow feed to produce each pound of steak. There are more efficient creatures out there, but we don’t usually eat them: bugs.
Naturally, we’ve talked about bug eating on Science Buzz already. But that focused more on bug eating (or entomophagy) as a concept). An article I read this weekend examines bug eating in practice, and it’s pretty wild.
While the story does talk about some straight up bug recipes (e.g. “mealworm fried rice”), it also looks at a company in the Netherlands that’s already raising and processing insects just for their protein. The advantages of farm-raised bugs are that you get a pretty generic, healthy product (it sounds sort of like … hotdog filling, or something, but without all the fat) from animals that require less food and produce a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gases created by normal livestock. However, efficiently separating the bug meat from the rest of the bug parts is a challenge, as is processing it without having it turn funky. Apparently, in the mysterious world of bug meat, funkiness is very much a possibility. But, really, when are we ever totally free of the threat of funkiness?
In any case, I’d like it if your takeaway message of this extravaganza was this: You should eat bugs, and like them, or you will be forced to eat bugs (and you probably won’t like them). Amiright?
If you can’t handle a takeaway message with that much raw power, try digesting this one instead: producing food has some serious challenges, so it behooves us to be innovative and foresightful with regards to our food sources.
Rendered insect meat!
"A rooftop farm in Brooklyn grows vegetables and doubles as a green roof, insulating the warehouse below. Green roofs save money on cooling and heating costs and also retain water, reducing the load on sewer systems. Annie Novak, head farmer and co-founder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm gives us a tour and Lisa Goode, whose company installed the roof, talks about the process.
On top of a warehouse in Brooklyn vegetables are sprouting. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is a 6,000 square foot plot that sells produce to New Yorkers and local restaurants. The soil also helps regulate the temperature of the building below. Science Friday stopped by for a tour.
Have you ever wanted to get involved in scientific research, but figured you weren't qualified? It turns out that scientists need help from people like you all over the world. Citizen science has been a popular pastime for nerdy types for quite a while, and now, online projects are connecting citizen scientists using social media.
What is citizen science, you ask? It takes many forms, but the ultimate goal is for normal folks like you and me to lend our time and abilities to scientists--to collect data, tag birds, photograph species--the list goes on. Amateurs help scientists by extending their observational reach--a network of 40 citizens all over the country can make more observations than 2-3 scientists in one location. They also help scientists by performing simple tasks that can be time-consuming but don't ultimately require specialized training.
Whether you're interested in plants, animals, climate, weather, pollution, or astronomy, there are plenty of ways to get involved--Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Citizen Science Central is a clearinghouse of citizen science projects. Some examples include:
You can even use your computer to model climate change. In these projects, it's important to follow directions from the scientists, to make sure your data and other contributions are usable. But no matter how you get involved, it's a great way to help develop a better understanding of the world around us, which helps pave the way for a better future.