black and white in colour

PHOTO POST

You may know that at this time of year lots of black and white ducks – Buffleheads, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Long-Tailed Ducks – show up on Lake Ontario. You may have heard that they dive for their food, eat a variety of mollusks, crustaceans, fish eggs, aquatic insects, sometimes even aquatic plants.

All very interesting, you say, but what everybody really wants to know about these black and white ducks is, “What colour are they?” I present here the results of my research on this complex issue.

Depending on the sun and wind, I found, a few of our study subjects may often be spotted keeping company with the multitudes of Canada Geese on one side or the other of the harbour breakwater. So off we go ….

Moments before sunrise (click images for full-screen view)

As daylight brightens I approach the edge of the shore ice, hoping to spot some waterfowl.

Temporary Fixture I

Temporary Fixture II

A male Long-Tailed Duck is showing the earliest signs of the intricate brown patterns that it will wear when it reaches its summer nesting area on the arctic coast.

Compound Arc

A female Long-Tailed Duck appears in the harbour channel, sporting a subtle palette of grays and browns.

Quiet Ripples

A female Lesser Scaup* dressed in rich browns disappears and surfaces among the still slumbering geese.

Among the Geese

In full sun a male Greater Scaup shows us why he’s nicknamed “Bluebill”.

Bluebill on blue

He turns his head and gives us a flash of iridescent green.

Bluebill with green

Not to be outdone, a Common Goldeneye gives us the same green, and then throws in a free bonus colour.

Green Goldeneye

Can you do purple?

Conclusion: Preliminary findings indicate that black and white ducks are blue, brown, gray, orange, yellow, purple and green. Further research is recommended.


Photo at top of page: Just focus on the duck (click here for full-screen view)

Greater and Lesser Scaup are known to be difficult to distinguish so I can’t guarantee which Scaups are pictured here. Even allaboutbirds.org authorizes this fudge: “It’s okay to record Greater/Lesser Scaup on your eBird checklist if you are unsure of the ID.”

Can big science be sustained?

Reflections on Fundamentals by Frank Wilczek

Also published on Resilience

During a long career at the frontiers of physics Frank Wilczek has earned many honours, including a Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004. Fortunately for general readers he is also a gifted writer with a facility for explaining complex topics in (relatively) simple terms.

Perhaps you have, as I do, an amateur fascination with topics such as quantum electrodynamics (QED) and quantum chromodynamics (QCD), and questions such as “To what extent do the laws of physics work the same running forward in time or running backward in time?” If so I heartily recommend Wilczek’s latest book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. (Penguin Random House, January 2021)

Wilczek shares with us the sense of wonder and beauty that has kept him excited about his work for the past 50 years. You might realize, as I did, that with Wilczek’s help you will understand aspects of particle physics, cosmology, and the nature of time better than you ever thought you might.

Yet from the opening pages of the book, Wilczek drops in assertions about history, society and the role of science that I found both troubling and worthy of a more focused examination.

What makes western science so great? (Or not.)

In Fundamentals Wilczek spends most of his time discussing scientific developments during the 20th century, particularly developments that weren’t even mentioned in high-school textbooks the last time I took a course in physics. But he grounds his discussion in a celebration of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

“The seventeenth century saw dramatic theoretical and technological progress on many fronts, including in the design of mechanical machines and ships, of optical instruments (including, notably, microscopes and telescopes), of clocks, and of calendars. As a direct result, people could wield more power, see more things, and regulate their affairs more reliably. But what makes the so-called Scientific Revolution unique, and fully deserving of the name, is something less tangible. It was a change in outlook: a new ambition, a new confidence.” (Fundamentals, page 4)

In subsequent centuries, the applied science that grew from this scientific revolution led to internal combustion engines, electric motors, all manner of telecommunications, digital cameras, lasers, magnetic resonance imaging and the Global Positioning System – to name just a few of the technologies that have transformed ways of life.

I count myself a fan of the scientific method, and I haven’t personally known anyone who is either ready, willing or able to live without any access to any of the technologies Wilczek cites as outgrowths of this method. But can these technological successes be credited solely to a new and superior approach to inquiry?

In the opening pages Wilczek states that “prior to the emergence of the scientific method, the development of technologies was haphazard.” (page 3) He then slips in an observation that to him requires no elaboration, presenting a graph of GDP growth with this comment:

“This figure, which shows the development of human productivity with time, speaks for itself, and it speaks volumes.” 

Graph from Fundamentals, by Frank Wilczek, page 3.

The graph speaks for itself? And just what does it say? Perhaps this: when at long last humans learned to extract ancient deposits of fossil energy, laid down over millions of years, and learned how to burn this energy inheritance in a frenzy of consumption, with no worries about whether successive generations would have any comparable energy sources to draw on, only then did “economic growth” skyrocket. And further: it’s not important that a great deal of wealth – from accessible fossil energy reserves to biodiversity to climate stability – has gone down as fast as that graph of GDP has gone up. It doesn’t matter, since in GDP’s accounting for economic growth there is no need to distinguish productivity from consumptivity.

As you might guess, what I glean from that GDP graph may not match what Wilczek hears, when he hears the graph “speak for itself.” But I think the relationship of science to the larger human enterprise, including the economy, deserves further scrutiny here.

That GDP is a crude economic indicator should become clear if we reflect on the left side of Wilczek’s graph as much as the right side. He credits the scientific revolution with leading to an explosion in productivity – but his graph shows a barely perceptible change in world GDP per capita for the period 1500 – 1800. Significant growth in GDP per capita, then, didn’t arise for at least a century after the scientific revolution, until about the time fossil fuel exploitation began in earnest.

Can this be taken as evidence that there were no fundamental changes in the world economy during the centuries immediately preceding the fossil fuel economy? To the contrary, some of human history’s most epic changes began about 1500, as western european nations colonized the Americas, instituted the slave trade on a massive scale, colonized large parts of Africa and Asia, and began a centuries-long transfer of ecological wealth from both land and sea around the globe, at the cost of hundreds of millions of human lives. Global economic wealth per capita may not have changed much during those centuries – but the distribution of that wealth, and the resulting wealth of a small slice of educated european elites, certainly did change. And it was from these elites that, with few exceptions, came the men (again, with few exceptions) who worked out the many discoveries in the scientific revolution.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these new understandings would come from people who had the economic security to get good educations, acquire expensive books, set up laboratories, make patient observations for years or decades, and test their theories even if any practical applications might be so far in the future as to be unforeseeable. A well-rounded assessment of the scientific revolution, then, should look not only at the eventual technological outcomes that might be credited to this revolution, but also the ecological and sociological factors that preceded this revolution. And a balanced assessment of the scientific revolution should also ask about blind spots likely to accompany this worldview, given its birth among the elite beneficiaries of a colonialism that far more of the world’s population were experiencing as an apocalypse.

In particular, it should be no surprise that among the class of people who do the lion’s share of consumption, the dominant faith in economics has conveniently assured them that their consumptivity equals productivity.

How much energy is enough energy?

Wilczek spends much of Fundamentals illuminating energy in many guises: the energy charge of an electron, the energy that holds quarks together to form protons, the gravitational energy of a black hole as it bends space-time, the dark energy that appears to be causing the universe not just to expand, but to expand at an accelerating pace. His explanations are marvels of clarity in which he imparts the sense of wonder that he himself felt at the outset of his lifelong scientific journey.

When he turns to the role that energy plays in human life and society, unfortunately, his observations strike me as trite. He titles one chapter, for example, “There’s Plenty of Matter and Energy”.

Here he gives us the unit AHUMEN, short for Annual Human Energy, which he calculates at 2,000 calories/day, which over a year comes to about 3 billion joules. With this unit in hand, he notes that world energy consumption in 2020 was about 190 billion AHUMENs, or about 25 AHUMENs per capita. He draws this conclusion:

“This number, 25, is the ratio of total energy consumed to the amount of energy used in natural metabolism. It is an objective measure of how far humans have progressed, economically ….” (p 127, emphasis mine)

If tomorrow we consume twice as much energy as we consume today, then by this “objective measure” we will have progressed twice as far economically. This sounds to me like neither clever physics nor clever economics, but mere mis-applied arithmetic.

Wilczek adds that Americans consume roughly 95 AHUMENs per person, without pointing out what should also be obvious: if the global average is 25 AHUMENs per capita, and Americans consume 95 per capita, that means hundreds of millions of people in our advanced global economy are getting only a few AHUMENs each.

Proceeding with his argument that “there’s plenty of energy”, Wilczek says that if we consider only “the portion of solar energy that makes it to Earth, then we find ‘only’ about 10,000 times our present total energy consumption. That number provides a more realistic baseline from which to assess the economic potential of solar energy.” (page 127)

Indeed, there is and always has been a vast amount of solar energy impacting the earth. That energy has always been enough to fry a human caught unprotected for too long in the desert sun. It’s always been enough to electrocute a human, when solar energy is incorporated into lightning storms. That abundant solar energy can even freeze us to death, when increasingly unstable weather systems push arctic air deep into regions where humans are unprepared for cold.

That energy has always been enough to kill crops during heat waves or to flood coastal cities when storms surge. With each passing year, as our geoengineered atmosphere holds in more heat, there will be more solar energy theoretically available to us, but immediately active in global weather systems. That will make our economic challenges greater, not simpler.

For that abundant solar energy to represent “economic potential”, we need to have technologies that can make that solar energy useful to us, and manageable by us, in cost-effective ways. Wilczek both recognizes and dismisses this concern in a single sentence:

“Technology to capture a larger fraction of that [solar] energy is developing rapidly, and there is little doubt that in the foreseeable future – barring catastrophe – we will be able to use it to support a richer world economy sustainably.” (page 140)

Wilczek himself might have little doubt about this, but I wish he had included some basis on which we could be confident this is more than wishful thinking.

While this discussion may seem to have veered a long way from the core concerns of Wilczek’s book, I suggest that the relationship of societal energy consumption to the needs of the scientific enterprise may soon become a critical issue.

ATLAS detector being assembled at Large Hadron Collider, 2006. Photo by Fanny Schertzer, 27 February 2006. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The energy demands of big science

The work of 20th century physics has come with a high energy price tag. Famously, some of the major steps forward in theory were accomplished by brilliant individuals scribbling in notebooks or on chalk boards, using tools that were familiar to Newton. But the testing of the theories has required increasingly elaborate experimental setups.

The launching of a space telescope, which helps reveal secrets of the farthest reaches of our universe, is one energy-intensive example. But likewise in the realm of infinitesimally small, sub-atomic particles – where Wilczek has focused much of his work – the experimental apparatus has become increasingly grand.

Wilczek tells us about Paul Dirac, a pioneer in quantum electrodynamics who wrote in 1929 that “The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known.” Yet much subsequent progress in the field had to wait:

“When Dirac continued, ‘And the difficulty lies only in the fact that application of these laws leads to equations that are too complex to be solved,’ modern supercomputers were not even a dream.” (page 120)

The theoretical framework for the Higgs particle was proposed decades before it could be confirmed, and that confirmation carried a huge energy cost. “In the years prior to 2012, Higgs particle searches came up empty,” Wilczek writes. “We know now, in retrospect, that they simply didn’t bring in enough energy. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, finally did.” (page 176)

It’s not just that this collider involved the construction of a circular tunnel 27 km in circumference, nor that while operating it draws 200 MW of electricity, comparable to one-third the electricity draw of the city of Geneva. The power allows experimenters to smash protons together at speeds only 11 km/h less than the speed of light. And these collisions, in turn, result in nearly incomprehensible quantities of data being captured in the Atlas detector, which sends “all this information, at the rate of 25 million gigabytes per year, to a worldwide grid that links thousands of supercomputers.” (page 176)

When the tunnel had been bored, the superconducting magnets built and installed, the Atlas detector (itself twice the size of the Parthenon) assembled, the whole machine put into operation, and the thousands of supercomputers had crunched the data for months – then, finally, the existence of the Higgs particle was proven.

Wilczek doesn’t go into detail about the energy sources for this infrastructure. But it shouldn’t escape our attention that the experimental-industrial complex remains primarily a fossil-fueled enterprise. Fossil fuels fly researchers from university to university and from lab to lab around the world. Fossil fuels power the cement plants and steel foundries, and the mines that extract the metals and minerals. Many individual machines are directly powered by electricity, but on a global scale most electricity is still generated from the heat of fossil fuel combustion.

Wilczek cites the vast amount of solar energy that strikes the earth each day as a vast economic resource. Yet we are nowhere close to being able to build and operate all our mines, smelters, silicon chip fabrication facilities, intercontinental aircraft, solar panel production facilities, electricity transmission towers, and all the other components of the modern scientific enterprise, solely on renewable solar energy.

And if someday in the not-too-distant future we are able to operate a comparably complex industrial infrastructure solely on renewable energy, will this generate enough economic surplus to support tens of thousands of scientists working at the frontiers of research?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled Summit as the world’s most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputer on June 8, 2018. “With a peak performance of 200,000 trillion calculations per second—or 200 petaflops, Summit will be eight times more powerful than ORNL’s previous top-ranked system, Titan. … Summit will provide unprecedented computing power for research in energy, advanced materials and artificial intelligence (AI), among other domains, enabling scientific discoveries that were previously impractical or impossible.” Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Just one clue

Wilczek cites a famous quotation from equally celebrated physicist Richard Feynman. During a lecture in 1961 Feynman offered this question and answer:

“‘If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms.’” (Feynman, quoted in Fundamentals, page 61)

And Wilczek proposes this revision:

“Instead of ‘all things are made of atoms,’ we should say that ‘all things are made of elementary particles.’” (page 62)

This may seem nothing more than an intellectual parlor game, with scientific knowledge today increasing at an accelerating pace. Wilczek doesn’t sound worried about the death of scientific knowledge, when he says that “Technology has already given us superpowers, and there is no end in sight.” (page 171)

But as we roar ahead into the climate crisis, I think it would be helpful and appropriate to revise Feynman’s question, replacing the “if” with “when”:

If When, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be is destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

We can’t know for sure, of course, whether the climate cataclysm will destroy scientific knowledge. But what we can see is that we are on a so-far unwavering path to climate catastrophe, and that most governments around the world aren’t pledging (let alone fulfilling pledges) to make carbon emissions reductions that are even close to sufficient. With each passing year the challenge of transforming our civilization into a sustainable civilization grows more urgent, time grows shorter, and the consequences of failure grow more threatening not only to individual lives but to the very survival of our species. These threats are being documented and communicated in great detail by our scientific enterprises. And yet the greatest beneficiaries of our supposedly productive global economy (individual examples notwithstanding) lead the charge to the cliff.

So perhaps it’s time to consider seriously “What one sentence of information might be most useful to our survivors?”

Suppose we project our thoughts, right now, into a climate-ravaged future. Earth’s surviving inhabitants contend with a violently unstable climate. They struggle to gather enough food from deeply impoverished ecosystems, they try to build sufficiently robust shelters, they yearn to raise healthy children, and they face these challenges without any useful energy boosts from polluting fossil fuels (fuels which in any case will be hard to extract, since we’ll have already burned up the easily accessible reserves). Our digital networks of knowledge may well have gone dark, and our libraries may have flooded or burned.

In this future, will it be helpful to tell our descendants “All things are made of elementary particles?” Perhaps it will be many generations further on, if all goes well, before they can again support a scientific elite, armed with elaborate experimental apparatus, capable of making sense of these “elementary particles”.

I can’t help but wonder if, in this future, the best advice we might offer would be a simple warning: “Don’t do what we did.”


Photo at top of page: Grappling the Hubble Space Telescope. An STS-125 crew member aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis snapped a still photo of the Hubble Space Telescope after it was grappled by the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System. Credit: NASA. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons.

wintering at sea

PHOTO POST

In our house, if a lake is big enough so that we can’t see across to the far shore, then we’re allowed to call it “the sea”.

Many ducks, we’re pleased to report, agree with our interpretation. In winter we have as company several species of ducks who ordinarily shun frozen lakes and typically hang out along the New England coast. The open waters of Lake Ontario, they seem to believe, are as good as the sea.

In recent months groups of Goldeneye, Scaup, and Long-Tailed Ducks have been visible off the coast in Scarborough, Pickering, Whitby and here in Port Darlington – though they don’t typically get within good camera range.

Blue Rainbow

On a recent excursion to Cranberry Marsh, at lake’s edge south of  Whitby, the diving ducks kept their usual distance but a pair of Trumpeter Swans swam right up to the shore.

Young Trumpeter

These beautiful birds had been hunted nearly to extinction but are now making a steady recovery, thanks in no small part to determined work by Ontario conservationists over the past four decades.

The Trumpeters’ resurgence is apparently not welcomed by the Mute Swans who have taken over much of the habitat for large swans.

Trumpeter, chased by Mute

Mute Swans will also chase each other or will chase Canada Geese – but there was no obvious reason why all these geese suddenly decided they had to take to the air.

All Together Now

At home in Port Darlington, the north winds have been cold enough to shape some shore ice.

Lively Ice

Where waves bounce against ice, feeding conditions seem especially attractive to true diving ducks.

Bluebill

Though most of their number stay well off-shore, one or two Greater Scaup (above) and Common Goldeneye (below, with Mallard) have plied the narrow harbour channel recently.

Goldeneye

By the heat of the morning sun, as steam rises off waves, fishing near the breakwater is well-nigh irresistible.

Hot Sun

Making Strides

Drops of Ice

Swells break against the shore ice, the water churns and foams – and now and then a Long-Tailed Duck or two ventures close to play in the surf.

Home on the Waves

That’s winter at its finest, down by the seashore.


Photo at top of page: Scratching the Surface (click here for full-screen view)

suite for january

PHOTO POST

Perhaps no month can show so many moods as January,* particularly when we get a taste of real winter as in the past few days.

On a clear crisp morning wave-spray has transformed every twig on the shoreline into a jewel.

Twigshine

Under an arch

Even grains of sand have conspired with the water and the temperature to shape new faces, if only for a day.

One Particular Wave

On a quiet cloudy morning, though, colours are understated, asking for careful study.

Steel Blues

Budding branches await a spring thaw.

Refraction

Much closer to the ground, a small thistle managed to grow in a thin layer of gravel on the breakwater last summer, and stands strong still.

Prickling Sensation

The January sunlight can be harsh, glancing low across the water through clouds of steam.

Wet Nose

The same rays can light mallard feathers into full iridescent glory.

Feathers will fly

On a clear morning the tones ring out most intensely right around sunrise.

Five Step

Net Orange

The atmosphere catches colour: in a tiny channel carved through a small shelf of shore ice, soft waves push moist air up against the ice and new designs shape themselves.

Breathing Hole

Even the rocks get a make-over just for this moment.

Long pink line

Back at home the mid-morning sun thaws a collection of American Bittersweet berries, calling hungry Starlings.

Bitter Sweet

If these berries tasted better they wouldn’t have lasted this long. A flock of Starlings, once they get hungry enough, can polish them off in minutes.

A Minor Murmuration


*It’s one of the top twelve, for sure.

Will the sun soon set on concrete?

Also published on Resilience

At the mention of our “fossil economy” or “fossil civilization”, most of us probably think immediately of “fossil fuels”. But as Mary Soderstrom’s recent book points out, not only our energy supply but also our most important building material has origins in fossilized ancient life.

Concrete, by Mary Soderstrom, is published by University of Regina Press, October 2020. 272 pages.

In Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future, Soderstrom shows us why cement is the literal foundation of nearly every strand of the capitalist economy. She also explains that, just as the fossil fueled industrial complex is deeply dependent on concrete for its infrastructure, so too the concrete industry is deeply dependent on fossil fuels. And these dependencies can’t be unwound easily or quickly, if at all.

By weight, of course, concrete is primarily made from sand, gravel and water – but the all important ingredient which turns the slurry into “manufactured rock” is cement. And cement, Soderstrom writes, “is in large part made from rocks laid down hundreds of millions of years ago when the shells and carapaces of organisms settled in the bottom of seas.” (Concrete, page 3)

The particular rock is limestone, which is abundant, widely distributed, and relatively easy to quarry and crush. But to make a cement from limestone takes energy – a lot of energy.

Ancient Greeks and Romans invented one form of concrete, and some of the resulting buildings and aqueducts still stand today. Quicklime was the basis for their concrete, and production of this lime needed only the heat from firewood. Making lime, Soderstrom says “had a large impact on the forests of any region where people had figured out how to make the substance.” (Concrete, page 44)

For uses such as marine piers and aqueducts, early concrete also depended on particular types of sand that had been forged in the heat of volcanos. The best such sand came from Pozzuoli, near Vesuvius, and such sands are still known as pozzolans. That kind of sand is not so abundant nor so widely distributed, and the global dominance of concrete as a building material had to await more recent technological developments.

This limestone quarry and cement production plant on the north shore of Lake Ontario is operated by St. Marys Cement, a subsidiary of Brazilian corporation Votorantim Cimentos. February 2016.

A key step came in the nineteenth century through the work of French engineer Louis Vicat. In his efforts to recreate the intense heat of volcanos, he developed kilns that chemically transformed crushed limestone into a forerunner of today’s ubiquitous Portland cement. These industrial volcanos had their own serious implications:

“The temperatures required for doing this are nearly twice as high as that needed to make quicklime, about 1,450 degrees C, and therein lie two of the great problems created by our enormous use of modern concrete: where to get the energy to attain those temperatures, and what to do with the greenhouse gases emitted in the process.” (Concrete, page 25-26)

The primary fuel for cement production remains coal, supplemented in some areas with pet coke (a dusty carbon residual from petroleum refining), ground up tires, plastic, even some wood byproducts. To date, renewable energy sources are not up to the challenge of producing good cement at quantity. That is because, Soderstrom writes “the end product of hydro, solar, nuclear, tidal, and wind power is electricity .… [S]o far it doesn’t produce temperatures high enough to make cement from the basic rock.” (Concrete, page 47)

Another key development arose because concrete, as hard as it may be, does not have great tensile strength and therefore doesn’t, by itself, span gaps very well. The skyscrapers and bridges essential to our cities and transportation systems need the addition of steel to concrete. Ridged steel rods, woven into forms before the concrete is poured, are commonplace today, but Soderstrom writes that it took much trial and error to produce a steel that would adhere to concrete in the right way. That steel was also very expensive until development of the Bessemer furnace in the 1850s. Only then could concrete take its place at the foundation of the industrial economy.

Vancouver Public Library central branch, British Columbia, October 2016.

Flashy constructions of glass, steel and concrete throughout our cities are one face of concrete’s dominance. But Soderstrom reminds us that concrete is equally important in humble abodes around the world. Do-it-yourself builders in edge cities rely on a bag of cement, a few buckets of gravel, and an old barrel in which to mix up a slurry – and the result may be a new wall or a solid floor in an improvised one-room dwelling. The government of Mexico, she notes, helped combat the spread of parasites by paying for $150 of supplies, allowing small home owners to replace their dirt floors with concrete.

“The desire to provide sanitary housing for ordinary working families has been the motor for concrete construction since the middle of the nineteenth century,” Soderstrom writes. (Concrete, page 69) There are echoes of this trend everywhere. In American suburbs, even where the walls and roofs are made of lumber, the homes nearly all stand on concrete foundations. Concrete was critical in rapidly reconstructing urban housing in Europe following World War II. And such construction continues on a gargantuan scale in contemporary China: “the United States used 4.5 gigatons of cement between 1901 and 2000, while China, as it ramped up its housing and infrastructure offensive, consumed 6.6 gigatons in only four years.” (Concrete, page 102)

Roads, bridges, houses, apartments, offices, factories – if concrete was important only in those categories of infrastructure, it would be a big enough challenge to replace. Yet Soderstrom illustrates how concrete is closely implicated in the food we eat and the water we drink. The formerly desert valleys of California, which now supply such a huge proportion of fruits and vegetables for North America, only became an oasis – perhaps a temporary one – due to massive concrete dams and hundreds of kilometres of concrete aqueducts and concrete irrigation ditches.

In other areas hundreds of millions of people live in areas that would frequently flood were it not for concrete flood control structures – and which might flood, catastrophically, if these structures are not maintained. Meanwhile hundreds of millions more depend for their drinking water on concrete canals that divert water away from its natural flow. This is true in the US southwest, for example, but on an even greater scale in China. “Already, Beijing is getting 70 percent of its water” from the South North Water Diversion,” Soderstrom writes – and this project is far from completion.

Truck route to Port of Valencia, Spain. October 2018.

An attempt to paint a full picture of concrete’s history and current importance is necessarily wide-ranging, and boundaries around the subject would necessarily be subjective. In the discussions of military strategy, social housing policy, and the politics of carbon taxes, there were many points in the book where I felt the focus on concrete was getting a bit too soft. Yet Soderstrom’s goal is much appreciated: she wants us to understand the vast scope of the challenge we face in transforming our concrete civilization into something sustainable.

It is now widely realized that the production of concrete is a major source of carbon emissions, and that we must reduce those emissions to net zero in the next few decades or face imminent collapse of the planetary life-support systems. Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future gives us glimpses of many efforts to reduce the environmental impact of concrete, through use of different fuel mixes, carbon sequestration, or technological enhancements that reduce the amount of Portland cement needed in a given project. None of these experiments sound reassuring, given the rapidity with which we must transform this critical industry, and given that it would be difficult if not impossible to simply forgo the use of concrete, within decades, without mass casualties.

Other books are better positioned to discuss the technical challenges involved in making sustainable concrete, or making sustainable infrastructure without concrete. But Soderstrom has performed a real public service in showing us the rich history of the seemingly dull material that undergirds our way of life.


Photo at top of page: Exponential Growth of Bridges – a Canadian Pacific rail line runs under ramps for the new Highway 418 expressway near Courtice, Ontario. January 2021. (Full-size image here.)

 

staying close to land

PHOTO POST

These days can be ever so quiet.

Some mornings the marsh is filled with geese and gulls, but other days the honks and screeches are far away.

Sparkle and Shadow

A pair of foxes might criss-cross the marsh before dawn, tracing the edges of every island, but leaving no evidence that they found a single mouse to eat.

If you come to a fork in the road, take it

Read More

quiet passage

PHOTO POST

We’ve slipped into a new year, but perhaps not yet into a new winter.

With no ice on the lake and patchy ice on the marshes, moisture rises to the sky and cloud mutes the light of many sunsets and sunrises.

 

She Sells Seashells (By the Lakeshore)

 

Swells Come Ashore

The morning of January 2nd was one glorious exception, as a bright sun rose in time to light up the freshly fallen snow.

Light in the Woods 1

 

Light in the Woods 2

 

Light in the Woods 3

The shipping season on Lake Ontario, typically finished by the end of December, is still in swing with two ships coming to port in the past week.

Shipping Lane 1

Shipping Lane 2

At the end of December we also had a fortuitous patch of clear sky, as the Long Night’s Moon rose over the lake before 5 pm.

Long Night’s Moon

This full moon, named for its proximity to the Winter Solstice, is often also called the Cold Moon –  but this year even the nights have been mild.

Do the birds expect the warm trend to carry through January? I couldn’t help but wonder when I saw this Great Blue Heron on January 4, a good month later in the season than I had spotted any herons in previous years.

Winter Vigil


Photo at top of page: Fragments (click here for full-screen view)

Celebrating the cargo bike revolution

A review of Motherload

Also published on Resilience

“Do you remember when your central purpose was to explore this world with your body? The sun and the wind, your legs, your breath, the water and dirt? This is how we understood the environment, and our place in it, and what it meant to be alive.”

Liz Canning remembers that everyday thrill of childhood. She remembers when that thrill disappeared under the obligations of adulthood and motherhood, when the sun and wind receded behind the sealed windows of a car, when exploring the world meant negotiating traffic jams in frustration. And she remembers rediscovering routine, daily joy with her children when she learned about cargo bikes and she escaped the cage of her car.

That’s the backstory of the deeply inspiring film Motherload. The feature-length documentary hit the festival circuit in 2019, and in 2020 it was released for on-demand rentals and purchase on Vimeo. (Education and library licensing available here and a DVD edition is here.)

Revolutions Per Minute

Motherload features Canning’s own story and the story of many other families, but the focus and the movie’s name developed several years into the project. The movie was produced through a crowd-sourcing model, with people around the world contributing stories, pictures, video clips and funds.

When I first became aware of the project in 2011 the working title was “Revolutions Per Minute: Cargo Bikes in the U.S.” A few years later the title had morphed to “Less Car More Go.” All along Canning was learning about the many types of cargo bikes, the people around the world who were building them and using them, and the first individuals and companies in the U.S. who were designing or importing cargo bikes.

This early research pays great dividends in the movie. Canning speaks with mountain bike design legend and historian Joe Breeze, and Xtracycle founder Ross Evans. She shows us how cargo bikes developed in Central America, West Africa, Australia and the Netherlands.

In the last 10 years the cargo bike movement has grown exponentially in North America. Cargo bikes, and cargo trailers pulled by bikes, became popular with tradespeople, mobile catering services, and courier services.

“It’s the moms”

But one type of cargo bike user became an increasingly important demographic: mothers with young families. Kaytea Petro of Yuba Bicycles – by then the largest seller of cargo bikes in the US – told Canning that “Seventy-five percent of our market are women.”

Thus it made perfect sense to name the movie Motherload, and to frame the issue through a series of personal stories – Canning’s own story, and the story of many other mothers who celebrate their new-found freedom to feel wind, sun and rain along with their children.

More than a hundred years ago the bicycle played a prominent role in women’s liberation. Today, Canning says, “We are still challenging notions of gender status, physical power, safety, even our definition of high quality of life.”

Unfortunately just as the suffragettes faced a lot of abuse from men, Motherload tells us about the “mom-shaming” and the vicious misogyny that women on cargo bikes often get from male drivers. Other hurdles include a lack of safe places to ride in many neighborhoods, and the high cost of still-rare cargo bikes (though the purchase price and especially the operating costs of cargo bikes are low compared to the cost of cars). Motherload packs in many stories and a lot of information, but there is still plenty of ground in this revolution for Canning or other documentarians to cover in future films.

Director Liz Canning and her twins

“We are teaching our children to become citizens of the earth,” Canning tells us. And she quotes Rebecca Solnit: “You do what you can. What you’ve done may do more than you can imagine, for generations to come.” The film closes with an image that will tug at the heart-strings of all parents, but particularly those in bicycling families: her twins, who first explored their world from the open-air box of a cargo bike, now pedal away on their own bikes, under their own power, down their own road.


picture at top of page: Emily Finch and her six children on their dual engine mini-bus

How we went from “makers” to “trash-makers” – and how to get back

Also published on Resilience


Why do we have so much stuff? Why is it so hard to find good stuff? And when our cheap stuff breaks, why is it so hard to fix it?

These questions are at the heart of our stories in 21st century industrialized nations, and these question are at the heart of Sandra Goldmark’s new book Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet.

As a theatre set designer Goldmark is attuned to the roles that things play in our personal stories. As a proprietor of a New York City “fix-it” shop, she understands why people want to keep and repair broken things, and why that is often unreasonably difficult. 

Fortunately for us she is also a darn good writer, whether she’s discussing the details of a damaged goose-neck lamp or giving an overview of a globe-spanning logistics system that takes materials on a one-way journey first to far-off factories, then to warehouses and stores, then to our homes, and finally, too soon, to our landfills. 

A copy of Fixation is one of the best gifts you could give or receive this season.

Linear Economy. Port trucks lining up for crane at Halifax loading dock.

Early in the book Goldmark asks why we are so attached to things, even when they have broken and it is more work to get them fixed than to buy new. This attachment, she says, is not pathological and indeed is at the very heart of being human. While many animals use simple tools, such as picking up a rock to crack nutshells, only humans make a point to save those tools. Living “in the moment” is great, but making preparations for the future is a key to our evolutionary success. Storing, maintaining, even loving our tools is thus a big part of human cultures.

The balance is seriously tilted, nevertheless, by an economic machine that depends on us buying more, all the time, and in particular buying new. Goldmark uses Ikea as a case study, describing their concerted effort to persuade customers that furniture is fashion, and we should buy new tables almost as often as we buy new clothes.

Then, too, there is carefully planned obsolescence, in products that we otherwise might keep for many years. Apple’s famously hard-to-replace batteries provide one example. Goldmark also describes an almost-durable desk lamp, which can be counted on to break because there is a plastic component where the lamp joins the gooseneck – that is, precisely where there is repeated motion and stress. Goldmark writes:

“Plastic is, very simply, a pain in the butt to fix. It’s hard to glue, and once compromised—cracked, scratched, nicked—it’s very hard to do anything useful with it at all. If you’ve got a plastic finish on something, you can, maybe, paint it or touch it up. But when plastic is used on component parts that take any stress, especially moving parts, it can mean that one small break makes the entire object useless.”

Placement. Loading “boxes” onto container ship, Halifax.

While plastic plays a big role in the factory-to-landfill pipeline, so too does cheap energy and international wage disparity:

“When  a  manufacturer  might  be  paid  three  dollars  per  hour  to  make  a  coffee machine in China or India, when raw materials and fuel for shipping are cheap, and a fixer in the States requires at least minimum wage, and hopefully more, it’s easy to see how making new cheap stuff became the dominant model.”

Thus in the United States in 2018, Goldmark writes, people spent about $4 trillion on new stuff but only $17.5 billion on used goods.

And while Americans like to celebrate their historical prowess as “makers”, not much is Made In America anymore. The makers, Goldmark writes, have been reduced to trash-makers. And unfortunately as the skills in making things atrophied, so too did the skills in repairing things.

Nudge. A tug guides a container ship to the wharf, Halifax harbour.

Getting beyond this unsustainable economy will require changes in attitudes, changes in education, changes in the manufacturing and retail chains, changes in wage allocations. Goldmark addresses all of these weighty subjects in beautifully accessible ways. With a nod to Michael Pollan, she rewrites his food mantra to apply to all the other things we bring home:

“Have  good  stuff  (not too much), mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on.”

Donating used goods helps, she writes, but “donating alone is not enough. If we’re not buying used ourselves, then we’re just outsourcing the responsibility of ‘closing the loop.’”

Caring for our things is both a simple and a complex undertaking. That means taking time to seek out quality items which will last and which can be repaired. It means promoting and honouring “embodied cognition” – simultaneous learning by head and hands, as practiced by people skilled in diagnosing and repairing. It means supporting companies that repair and resell their own products, and supporting local repair shops so they can pay a living wage.

As humans we will always want, need and have things, but our current way of life is unsustainable and we need to do much better. The good news, she says, is that

“We have the tools. We can build a better, circular model of care, of stewardship, of maintenance. A model where we value what we have.”


Photo at top of page: Freight yard at sunrise. Fairview Cove Container Terminal, Halifax, Nova Scotia. August 29, 2018. (click here for full-screen view)

 

the woodpecker’s tongue 

PHOTO POST

If I hadn’t gone grocery shopping on bicycle, I probably would have missed the oversized woodpecker checking out some local trees. But as I pedaled down the street towards home I heard a bird speaking a language I didn’t recognize, and I turned my head just in time to spot the flashy red crest of Dryocopus pileatus.

The colourful sight was a welcome treat given that nearly all migratory birds have left, vegetation is now mostly faded, and the sun’s glancing rays are often dulled by clouds. The views across marsh and lake often present in a nearly black and white palette.

Light Curves (click images for full-size views)

The Lesser Yellowlegs was one of the last traveling birds to come through from shores far to the north. On a cloudy evening the shallow muddy water made an austere background for this wader.

Dotted Lines

But in the afternoon sun the waters picked up reflected colour from surrounding plants.

Soft Splash

And a nearby stand of sumach turned the surface to crimson.

Red Dive

Warm days soon gave way to chillier mornings and the welcome sight of steam rising off the lake.

Sunrise Parade

The autumn still held a surprise, though, for the spectacular Pileated Woodpecker made a sudden appearance just a few days ago. Since this is not a migratory species, perhaps she has moved in nearby.

Listen Here

A bird this large needs to carve a deep hole for a nest, and the Pileated Woodpecker is up to the task. “Pileated Woodpeckers use their long necks to pull far back from the tree, then make powerful strikes with their heavy bills, pulling with their feet to increase the strength of the blow.” (allaboutbirds.org)

It’s convenient that some of the tastiest food lives in trees: “The birds also use their long, barbed tongues to extract woodboring beetle larvae.” (allaboutbirds.org)

Woodpecker’s Tongue


Photo at top of page: Exploration (click here for full-size image)