SOF – Bill McKibben

Yesterday I caught this show on the radio. It’s an interview with Bill McKibben. He’s an author, activist and most recently the head of This is an agency that is “dedicated to building a movement to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis–the solutions that science and justice demand.” The 350 refers to aiming for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of 350ppm.

The radio piece is not heavily focused on faith but touches on the spirit of environmental activism as it relates to humility, and what realignments the movement and society could benefit from. I am probably messing that up so listen for yourself.


It’s a important characteristic to have and one that comes to mind when you think of our lives on the scale of earth and climate. I think it’s a good reason to advocate for changes, or rather less (climate) change. In the same vein, this frightening and prophetic advertisement from the ironically named Humble Oil company found in a 1962 issue Life magazine made me think of it.

COP15 – Google Earth Outreach Showcase

Yesterday the COP15 talks were kicked off in Copenhagen, Denmark. I took a break from writing papers to follow some links on some of the many sites devoting some time and space to this huge conference. [banner from Grist]

One of the coolest things that I found was a series of tours, demonstrated on Youtube here. It’s also a bit funny because you can hear about climate change from Ted Danson. From there you can download some of the demonstrations you watch on Youtube for real interaction within Google Earth, including full IPCC climate scenarios. It’s so cool because it easily combines modeled changes with satellite data that portrays information about land use, population and land cover. You can add and remove layers and scroll through time too (not sure how much satellite imagery will change with time). It also puts you directly in contact (with hyperlinks) with organizations and documents that back up or expand on the data. This eventually took me to their Earth Outreach page. They have a number of tools available to help non-profits visualize problems and projects using Google Earth. Below is one that I found pretty cool.

Now I’m thinking about how I can use this in my class next semester. More to follow on this and COP15.

Straight Diesel

In this string of updates about the projects I am working on I would like to present the latest; the Railyard Risk Assessment. This project focuses on a hazard, quantification of possible exposures, use of dose-response information to determine risk, and a summary that expands on uncertainties and tries to give an idea of what it all means. This, apparently, is risk assessment.

Thanks to Ben’s extracurricular work, we landed a nice project right here in Atlanta. We decided to look at residences being built right next to two large rail yards on Atlanta’s west side.
We modeled the emissions coming from the yard’s activities (using a Cali yard as a proxy) and then used a model from EPA to obtain the resultant concentrations of diesel particulate matter at the new homes. The actual risk is still being determined but the results could prove to be very interesting. Below is a movie shot from one of the lots. The most perfect irony of this is that these new homes are Earth Craft, a green building certification that puts the word “healthy” in the first sentence of its self-description. This is one example of how marketing and narrowly focused, under-developed certifications are capitalizing on ‘green‘ (also read healthy) trends without necessarily furthering the whole objective.

GA Clean Diesel
interested in buying one these homes?
More photos of the yard here

Happy Planet

During a discussion about the project I am working on here in Bogotá, the professor here introduced me to a document produced in the recent past called the Happy Planet Index (put out by the The New Economics Foundation. It describes itself like this:
The Index is built from three different indicators, two of which are objective: life expectancy and the ecological footprint – a measure of our use of environmental goods and services. The third indicator is people’s subjective well-being, or ‘life satisfaction’. (It should be noted that the was people report their life satisfaction corresponds to objective facts such as their mental and physical health.)
They’ve set the target for 83.5, yet the highest is 68.2 attained by the island(s) nation of Vanuatu. The lowest is Zimbabwe’s 16.6.
The Happy Planet Index came about in a discussion about some life satisfaction questions that are part of a questionnaire we’re using for our analysis. Olga, wanted to show me the one-sided responses they’ve received to a question about how many times the respondent has been sick in the last 30 days. Over 60% said zero days. I thought and still think it’s in part the form of the question but she then pulled up the Happy Planet Index report to show me how ‘happy’ Colombia apparently is. The country is THE highest in South America, and arguably the best rating overall with a score of 67.2.

#1 in Asia? Vietnam. Hmmm, all places we (US) have a history with and that (for us) carry a stigma, and all places I’ve gone to spend some time. But the answer must be a bit more complicated than that. Neither of those points was mentioned in the report. To be certain, if you’re renowned for poverty, overthrown puppet governments, or drug wars and then you start to experience some economic recovery then those improvements are likely much more noticeable and the people in those places can get happy about that. Of course that doesn’t explain the whole ecological footprint segment. I expect that the footprints are both are getting larger. Olga told me that Colombia has been able to keep large amounts of the country naturally preserved. This in part is because of paramilitary, nonetheless those places aren’t being developed.

I think both Colombia and Vietnam have significant natural resources and their governments have done some things right. Bogotá, or at least its leadership has taken steps to give a better life to citizens. This speech from one of the city’s most famous major’s lays out some of the logic behind his actions to improve equality and quality of life for the city’s citizens. He even talks about economics of happiness and its role in public decision making. It doesn’t sound like typical politician speak. Or is it becoming more common. Quality of life rumored to be an asset for attracting economic development. You’ll even hear it in Atlanta when people like to bring up the abundance of trees and lack of cold weather. The Beltline is expected to preserve and even enhance this ‘quality’ of the life in the city. And in both of these cases it seems the power and influence of mayors may be on the rise.

But, back to the Happy Planet Index… Where is the US? Keep in mind that we’re probably at a point where incremental increases in national prosperity matter less to us individually but we scored a red 28.8.


Whenever I hear about the makeup of landfills in the US (for example in this book discussed in class), or when I read pieces about how to reduce your footprint or the 10 things you can do to make a difference plastic bags seem to find their way into the conversation. I guess they really are pesky and persistent nuisances, in more than one regard. While I don’t see the connection to stopping global climate change directly it makes sense that using less of these bags could eventually reduce the number that end up somewhere later. The most common substitute, and one that is in my face more all the time, is using a more substantial (cloth, read hemp) bag for your groceries. Your own personal, dedicated, and somewhat more permanent grocery bags.

On a recent trip to Ikea (the haven of socially responsible hyper consumerism, if there is such a thing) we were asked, at the self checkout, how many bags we had used in completing our purchase. Not thinking we responded with none. On the way out we also decided to pick up a food item to take to a party. Again we were asked if we wanted a bag and this time I had to inquire as to why they would need to know. It turned out that it’s all a new policy that aims to reduce consumers use (or overuse) of plastic bags. Each bag requested or required by Ikea shoppers will carry with it a $0.05 charge.

I like Ikea’s approach to all of this. Leave it up to the consumer to make the change. Maybe people will come here and think about plastic bags and then leave here and make more informed decisions about plastic bags later. The economics of it is simple enough and I, as a consumer, could immediately see how my decision was affected. For us it worked like a charm. We left the store juggling our goods through the parking lot.

After the trip to Ikea, I found out that California had already taken steps making this environmentally-friendly, if not trendy, practice into mandate (no surprise here). San Francisco was the first to take action (again, no surprise). I can’t say I’m against all these actions, just think of all the other hazards these bags present. Surely from a public health standpoint (independent of environmental quality) less plastic bags lying around is a good thing. Especially lying around a baby alone on a bed.
If all the plastic bags disappear we may be losing more than a simple and wasteful method of carrying things and picking up dog poop. We might just be taking away a mundane object that, when its path crosses a gust of wind, can make us realize how much beauty there is in the world. But at least if we got rid of new plastic bags today, we’d still have the ones we have right now for the next 200 years or so. Thanks, Ricky.

Something in the Air

Spring has sprung in Atlanta and you’d know it from the greenery creeping back, the people outside and the thick yellow film of pine pollen that coats everything. Every car has some message scripted into it. Park your car on the street and you’re sure to wind up with a “wash me” or a “Go $*@&! yourself.” In Ben’s neighborhood the good little kids of Decatur draw butterflies in the pollen, but other places they draw more obscene images. Anyway, yesterday was the first rain we’d received in a week or so and every puddle had swirls of yellow gracing their surfaces. One thing everyone seems to know everything about is the pollen count. The story comes out the same no matter who is telling it. “Above 100 is supposed to be very high and we’ve been up around 5,000” It sounds like the type of thing that can get blown out of proportion really fast. But if you heard it on WABE during the pledge drive last week, it must be true.

I decided to do some investigating. I went straight to the source: Google, and typed in ‘Atlanta pollen count’. The brought me to the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic who perform the daily pollen count for the Atlanta Area. Below is a sample of their findings.

My allergies have not been horrific as of yet. A bit plugged up (in the nose) but that’s about it. I also heard on the radio that the pollen you can’t see (oak, sycamore, etc.) is what is gets people. C’est la vie, at least spring is here.

Planet Earth

If you were not tuned in to the American premiere of the series Planet Earth on Discovery Channel, you truly missed out. This series uses nature footage in HD collected over 5 years to convey the world’s landscapes and ecosystems as you’ve never even imagined seeing them. They use high tech cameras and film to slow down the attacks, follow the hunts from above and transform months to minutes. The clip above is from the show and show a great white hunting (and capturing) a seal. The attack takes one second but is slowed down to 1/40th that speed. This article in Wired reports on some of the never-before-used techniques employed for this series.

The series originally aired on BBC and has been re-narrated for our American ears by Sigourney Weaver. The look this series provides at nature is truly awesome and breathtaking. It constantly challenges my presumed ideas of what is possible and how varied life is. It will make you want to go back and watch over and over until you finally overcome disbelief. In a time of high tech graphics and special effects, the use of technology to capture the realest of occurrences is the most stunning of all.

Arabia, DeKalb, GA

I have not been on here in awhile because I have been busy with school: turning in assignment after assignment and puttin’ in work.

Yesterday we took advantage of my first day of spring break and the beautiful weather here to get outside. We couldn’t go too far because our mileage stinks lately. We need to replace the oxygen sensor (bank 1) but that’s a story for another time. We decided to try Arabia Mountain and nature preserve just south of Lithonia. It is a great retreat from the city and you don’t have to go far.

I wish I had some pictures to show you but the batteries were dead. It a great place to take the dog for a hike. We introduced her to water and the outdoors. She’s still learning to get used to bicycles. They have plenty of trails for you bike and you can blaze your over huge exposed rocks. This is much better, and less crowded than Stone Mountain and not much further. Check it out if you haven’t already.


The last seven (7) days I was taking care of some work study I have been meaning to tend to for some time. This break in school and travel and buying a house was the opportune time to schedule the 7 days this task required. By the end of it I had covered 1,600 miles and been in a minivan for 56 hours but had not gone a single place.

It is all part of the winter monitoring phase for a study to evaluate exposures to indoor air pollution (mainly particulates) in specific microenvironments. In-vehicle exposures is part of this so we rent a minivan and drive around while the air around is being monitored. Other settings for sampling include the grocery store, hospital, bookstore and home. The sampling periods are eight hours and the work needs to be done for a full week in each environment. Here is an absolutely poor picture of the machinery.

I do not work alone. My partner in crime – we are not committing the crime, but rather having a crime committed against us, it must be against the law to ask anyone to spend so much time in a car going nowhere, but they’re from Harvard so they’re untouchable – is Ajay. Most fortunately we got along swell. Primarily because we teamed up to focus our anger collectively at other drivers, pedestrians, ridiculous homes, billboards, and the machinery itself. One piece of equipment was particularly bothersome with its malfunctions, specifically its constant demands for more alcohol. 100% isopropyl alcohol that is. This machine is the P-trak. A couple of times it claimed our iPod capabilities in the car because in order to silence the beep, which I can hear if I close my eyes, need to plug the tape adapter into its headphone jack. Yes, it has a headphone jack to really feel those lo-alcohol warning beeps whenever you’re out doing some ultrafine particulate monitoring. The machine was by far the most problematic and most involved part of the sampling.

Besides changing out the alcohol, there is little else to do but drive. You probably can not imagine how 56 hours on Atlanta roads feels in one week. COMPLETE LOOPS OF 285. Listening to the traffic to find the accidents and then try not to avoid them. Maybe the GDOT HERO units know how it feels. Or at least they knew after the first week and by now they are completely insane.

We did get to see some very interesting parts of the city (numerous times). Parts you would normally never visit. We took exits you wouldn’t ever take with time you’d never have. I feel like I know Atlanta a bit better now. We got to watch Peachtree change over the course of 8 hours. 2PM is much different from 6:30AM. We got some experience with monitoring indoor air quality and earned a little money. And I have to admit I had a pretty good time and have a newfound appreciation for not looking at this every morning.I think I just heard a beep.