Tag Archives: environment

Why the hybrid isn’t the answer

Pax Arcana

pontiacYou probably agree that the only thing more taxing than arguing over the environment is doing math.

Well hold onto your brain balls, bitches, because they’re about to get kicked with the hard feet of learning, Freakonomics-style.

Here’s the situation: Imagine your friend buys a Toyota Prius that gets 46 miles per gallon. You, on the other hand, drive a Toyota RAV 4 SUV that only gets 24 mpg. And you smell like salami, but that detail is not important. Your other friend rolls in a Land Rover that gets 14 mpg.

Now let’s say the RAV 4 driver switches to a Prius, and the Land Rover driver switches to a RAV 4. Who helps the environment the most?

You may be tempted to select the first friend, since the leap from 24 mpg to 46 mpg is greater than the leap from 14 mpg to 24 mpg. You’d be wrong, and the reason is that you’re as stupid as college kids:

Why does 10 m.p.g. matter more than 22? The reason is that the relationship between m.p.g and fuel savings is not linear but curvilinear. Ten m.p.g. at the bottom of the range matters a lot more than 22 m.p.g. higher up.

This is a hard concept for us to get our brains around. Richard B. Larrick and Jack B. Soll, reporting in Science (gated) found that only 1 percent of college students studied correctly perceived that an improvement from 14 to 24 m.p.g. saves considerably more fuel than an improvement from 24 to 46.

To give our brains a break, we might adopt a better way to look at fuel efficiency, aided by the manipulation of a mathematical tool in use in the Indus Valley almost 5,000 years ago — the unglamorous fraction.

The trick is one that even fourth-graders can master: invert the fraction. Let’s consider not miles per gallon but gallons per mile (or, to make the numbers prettier, gallons per hundred miles). By this metric, we get an unclouded picture: the Prius uses 2.17 gallons per hundred miles, the RAV4 uses 4.17, and the Range Rover uses 7.14.

Thanks to the mileage mirage, our efforts as a society may be somewhat misplaced. There are plenty of policy ideas afoot to get people into state-of-the-art, fuel-efficient cars, but a lot less interest in simply getting people out of the worst gas guzzlers into moderately more efficient alternatives, even within the same fuel-hungry class.

Luckily for all of us, my vehicle of choice actually adds more fossil fuels to the earth than it consumes. It’s a van I found unlocked and running behind the museum. I make sure to toss at least twenty fossils out the window for every gallon of gas.

Buy an S.U.V., Save the Planet [Freakonomics]

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Weed-powered airplane about to get high

Pax Arcana

planeYou may remember when we posted about jatropha, the wild growing weed that some energy scientists say is a good bet for mass-production of a reliable biofuel.

OK, you probably don’t remember that at all. Hell, I didn’t remember it until I did a Google search for “jatropha” and this Web site was listed among the results. There it  was — a whole post about the freaky weed with my name on it — and still I don’t remember writing it.

I guess an addiction to huffing spray paint really is a bad thing.

Anyway, according to the Tech Review, a Boeing 747 owned by Air New Zealand is set to be the first aircraft to test the new fuel. The first flight is set for December 3.

While other planes have flown on biofuels before, jatropha offers several advantages over other sources:

Unlike many other biofuels, UOP’s jatropha jet fuel can replace conventional fuel without requiring changes to existing engines. Indeed, by several measures, the fuel is better than conventional jet fuel. It has a lower freezing point and can be exposed to higher temperatures onboard a plane without degrading. It also contains slightly more energy than conventional jet fuel, so a plane powered by jatropha could travel farther.

Also, jatropha plants are inedible — which is good for farmers worried about the government subsidizing competition — and scrub the atmosphere of carbon dioxide.

Also, you can put your weeeeed in it. OK I guess that doesn’t make any sense.

A Weed-Powered Passenger Jet [Tech Review]

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The sea lamprey is too ugly for Vermont

Pax Arcana

Conservationism is the noble effort to preserve the world’s flora and fauna for future generations to enjoy. At its root, conservationism is the recognition that we are all inextricably linked in a magic symphony of symbiosis.

Except for these things, which should be burned and beaten with heavy sticks:


This handsome fella is the sea lamprey, a fixture in Vermont’s Lake Champlain for thousands of years. Recently fisherman have blamed the lampreys — which are parasites — for weakening or killing off many of the lake’s fish populations:

There isn’t a fisherman on the lake without a story: once-prized catches that are now bizarrely scrawny; fish marred by distinctive bull’s-eye wounds; salmon and trout that are pulled up from the lake with live sea lampreys hanging off them like sinister-looking streamers.

Some scientists say humans are responsible for the growth of the sea lamprey population, thanks to our insatiable appetite for putting fish in the water and then yanking them back out:

Since fisheries began restocking the lake with nonnative strains of trout and salmon in the 1970s, the sea lamprey population, judging from the number of wounds on fish, has skyrocketed.

“We’re feeding the lampreys by restocking their favorite food,” said Ellen Marsden, a biology professor at the University of Vermont who has researched sea lampreys. “And we’re competing for the same fish.”

Anyway, state conservation officials and local business owners disagree about what to do with the sea lampreys. Efforts to curb the population by poisoning may not be working, and some argue that the lake should be left alone to allow its ecosystem to find some sort of equilibrium.

I say fishing would be a lot better if you could catch brownies instead of fish. Brownies are the unsung heroes of the dessert tray. Cake and ice cream get all the glory, but it’s the brownies that get the job done.


A monster’s tale [Boston.com]


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Friday Random 10: Volt Edition

Pax Arcana

Despite my endorsement of extra-terrestrial Vice Presidential candidates, Pax Arcana is a proud American who wants nothing but the best for cornerstone American businesses such as auto manufacturers, software companies, and the Wayans brothers.

That’s why I’m openly rooting for the Chevy Volt.

The Volt. Can you feel the electricity?

Like other American car companies, Chevy is on the brink of irrelevance thanks to our increasing distaste for the gas-guzzling trucks that propped up the domestic market throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In a hugely risky gamble to get back on track, Chevy is pouring around half a billion dollars into research and development of the Volt, a mostly-electric car aimed at bringing reduced-emissions vehicles to mainstream America.

If successful, the groundbreaking technology tucked inside the car could drastically reduce the environmental impact of each owner:

The Volt, which General Motors finally unveiled Tuesday, is a series hybrid, also called a range-extended electric vehicle. Like the Prius, it’s got an electric motor and a gasoline engine, but the engine merely charges the battery as it approaches depletion. Electricity alone turns the 17-inch wheels. The Volt is designed to travel 40 miles on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery, meaning most drivers will never burn a drop of gasoline.

It won’t be mass produced until 2010, but here’s hoping Chevy’s on to something. I’m sure our environmentally savvy and not-at-all-shrunken-brained vegetarian friend Eoin over at the Bright Green Blog will keep us up to date.

The songs:

Candylion — Gruff Rhys
What’s Good — Lou Reed
Blind — Talking Heads
Videotape — Radiohead
Masochism World — Hüsker Dü
Bye & Bye — Bob Dylan
NYC-Gone, Gone — Conor Oberst
Mississippi — Bob Dylan
Bought for a Song — Fountains of Wayne
Missing — Beck

Bonus Video:

I’m OK You’re OK — Let’s Wrestle (Live at Stolen)

The Rules: The Friday Random 10 is exactly that — random. We open up our iTunes, set the thing on shuffle, and listen to 10 songs. We are not permitted to skip any out of embarrassment or fear of redundancy. Commenters are encouraged to post their own.

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Paris Hilton is smart

Pax Arcana

By now you’ve probably already seen that fake Paris Hilton for President energy plan ad. And you maybe giggled. And you were maybe a little shocked that she didn’t sound entirely like the retarded baby giraffe she looks like.

But what about that energy plan? Would it work?

Our friend Eoin O’Carroll over at Bright Green Blog does the dirty work, scouring through all kinds of numbers and facts and other things that presidential candidates just can’t be bothered with. Turns out the Paris Hilton energy plan may be completely backward, but still better than the other options on the table:

So in short, the Hilton Plan seems to have it backward: Even under fairly conservative estimates we have the ability to develop more fuel-efficient technology before we can access all the oil that’s offshore.

But it also looks like, even with such technology, the United States would still need to be importing significant amounts of oil from abroad in the coming decades. If we really wanted to get ourselves off the sauce, we’d need to combine these technological improvements with developing walkable communities and extending public transit.

Interesting. On a side note, my figures indicate that ESPN could reduce its carbon footprint by 82% just by halving the number of reporters chasing the Brett Favre story. This move would also have a tangible effect on the psychology of American sports fans — most of whom would rather suck out their own eardrums with a Shop-Vac than listen to another GD story about it.

And that’s one to grow on.

Will Paris Hilton’s energy plan work? [Bright Green Blog]

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White House to EPA: Return to Sender

Pax Arcana

This is more appropriate fodder for the kick-ass Bright Green Blog over at the Christian Science Monitor, but I can’t resist.

A while back, the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine whether greenhouse gases posed a threat to the environment. The EPA did the necessary work and concluded that, yup, they did.

Here’s where it gets awesome.

The EPA then emails the report to the White House last December. The White House took the below position on the email:

Or, as the New York Times puts it:

The White House in December refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened, senior E.P.A. officials said last week.

I suggest the EPA headline its next report “Bin Laden determined to attack inside US.” Oh wait — that won’t work either.

White House Refused to Open Pollutants E-Mail [New York Times]


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The bears are OK for now, thanks

Pax Arcana

Imagine you live in a house that faces south on all four sides. A bear walks by. What color is the bear?

It is white, because you’re at the North Pole and it’s a polar bear.

[Channeling Matthew McConaughey]
Now imagine… (sniff)… imagine… (sniff) imagine that bear was black.

The defense rests.


Oh yeah, bears.

The Great Beyond blog at Nature.com says we shouldn’t be writing the obituary of the polar bear just yet — despite recent dire predictions in the mass media to that effect. While we should be concerned about the long-term future of the species, there is no evidence that polar bears are in immediate danger of extinction:

The [Canadian] Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada says the bear is merely of ‘special concern’, just one step up from ‘fine and dandy’ although the government group does admit to some worries. “Although the current and projected decline is insufficient to justify a status of Threatened, considerable concern exists over the future of polar bears in Canada,” says the latest assessment.

Even worse, the more attention the cute and fuzzy bears get, the less attention is paid to uglier species that really are disappearing:

And according to a paper published recently in Ecological Applications, the narwhal is in bigger trouble from global warming than the polar bear anyway. Researchers assessed seven Arctic mammals and found the spiky-faced whale should be concerning us more than the polar bear.

“What we wanted to do was look at the whole picture because there’s been a lot of attention on polar bears,” Ian Stirling, paper author, told AP. “We’re talking about a whole ecosystem. We’re talking about several different species that use ice extensively and are very vulnerable.”

It’s all very well having iconic species for your conservation efforts. Sometimes though it seems we’re in danger of only saving the cute things that we like the look of.

I take this personally ever since that time I killed that polar bear because he was eating endangered Fragrant Popcorn Flower plants. Protecting the environment isn’t all glamorous fundraisers and fancy lightbulbs, you know. You need a really big flamethrower to kill a bear that big.

Polar Bear Not ‘Endangered,’ Just ‘Concerning’ [Nature.com]


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