Sunday, October 31, 2010

Minnesota's Dirty Oil Secret

Think of Canada and images of pristine rivers and vast open spaces may come to mind. But there is another Canada, one that is home to what the Sierra Club has called “the dirtiest oil on Earth.”

And it’s coming to a gas station near you.

Like me, I’d guess most Minnesotans assume the gasoline in our cars comes from the Middle East. Imagine then, my surprise when attending a recent public forum to learn that up to 80 percent of it actually comes from Canada—or more specifically from the boreal Forest of Alberta. This figure appears all the more amazing when it’s estimated that this oil accounts for only about four percent of overall U.S. use.

The oil is known as tar sands and Alberta is home to nearly all Canada’s deposits. After Saudi Arabia, it represents the second largest recoverable oil reserves in the world. But to create one barrel of oil requires mining two tons of soil! This in turn releases three times as much greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil compared to conventional oil.

Tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen. They are mined for the bitumen, a heavy thick hydrocarbon with the consistency of tar, because it can be converted to oil. But unlike conventional oil, it can’t be pumped out of the ground so instead it must be strip mined.

Strip mining is dirty and destructive. Pristine forest and topsoil must be stripped away and the ground dug up using gigantic diggers and earth moving trucks. Heated water is then used to remove the bitumen from the sand. This water is recycled and is then dumped into toxic lakes called “tailings” ponds. These ponds cover an area of 50 square miles and are so large they are visible from space.

Two years ago 1600 migrating ducks landed in a 5 mile square waste pond; three survived.

And what of the indigenous people who still live off the land? Residents downstream from the largest concentration of strip mining operations report that they can no longer drink the water or eat the fish from the area and they suspect that rare forms of cancer are caused by tar sands pollution.

We hear in the news about hybrid and fully electric cars and of breakthroughs in green technology and I know that our dependence on oil won’t be solved overnight, but why are we searching for ever more remote sources? And proposing to build a new network of pipelines across the United States to carry this oil to market?

If the proposed pipelines are built, tar sands oil will be a major source of gasoline for years to come, and one of our last ecosystems will be further destroyed. Perhaps the solution lies in opposing the construction of pipelines. But change doesn’t happen with one person; it happens when people are moved and motivated by an idea.

Perhaps all this may sound hypocritical because I rely on my car every day, but it has at least opened my eyes to something I see as both destructive and unnecessary. And, at a minimum, it has made me ask what I can do.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Aliens on Earth and Life in the Universe

Since prehistoric times there have been clues found to possible contact with extraterrestrials, be it in oral traditions, stone monuments, petroglyphs (cave drawings), or other forms of art.

Today, we are able to send spacecraft on missions to explore other worlds and have powerful telescopes capable of peering deep into space to observe distant galaxies in all stages of evolution. And yet, the question of whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe remains unresolved. One thing is certain, however: the implications of such a discovery would be immense.

As part of a recent class project, I met with a woman in her mid to late 40s from northern Minnesota and asked her to share her thoughts and opinions about the possibility of life (particularly intelligent life) elsewhere in the Universe and about the impact that such a discovery might have on society. As we talked, my pre-formed questions were quickly cast aside as the conversation--concentrating more on the social aspects--took a course of it’s own. The conversation took place near Duluth, Minnesota on June 5th, 2010. At her request, I have used her preferred pseudonym of Lynen.

Asked to consider the implications of the discovery of intelligent life on other planets, or of an alien visit to this one, Lynen doubted that such a discovery would ever be made public for fear of creating widespread panic.

“Even if they (the aliens) handed out daisies while rainbows beamed from their fingertips, people would still buy guns and flee,” she said. In a broadside against our commercial age, she added, “Because of the potential for enormous wealth from such a discovery - through merchandising and entertainment, for example - there would be a stampede to try to co-opt, copy write, trademark, or patent some aspect of it.” She thinks that in order for such an adventure to prove successful, “the masses would have to accept the alien life forms.”

I asked what difference it might make if intelligent life were discovered far from our own solar system, far enough away, in fact, that it would take thousands of years (traveling at speeds currently available to man) for them to reach Earth.

“I think it would be an opportunity for governments to take more power and exercise control over their populations through fear-mongering. Martial law could be justified and military budgets increased,” she replied. “Having the aliens far away would be a vague and poorly defined threat – like today’s terrorist,” she added.

Turning to religion, I asked what might be the effect on our belief systems. “Religious leaders would try to dispute any proof of intelligent life far from Earth - claiming it had been fabricated or photo-shopped – fearful of the threat to established norms,” she said.

Looking past the initial panic she sees as inevitable, Lynen painted a picture of how religious leaders might adapt to a changed world. “Once the masses have accepted the reality of the discovery, each religion would then try to claim the alien life as proof of the existence of their God - that either the aliens are their God or are their God’s creation,” she said.

I suggested that Christians might see the arrival of aliens as an allegory of the Christ story, coming from the heavens to bring healing to humans. “There would definitely be those who would assume that the life forms had good intentions – like that scene in Independence Day, when people massed on roofs of skyscrapers holding banners welcoming the hovering spacecrafts. As the base of the crafts opened and bathed the throngs with light, everyone cheered and beamed euphorically – until, of course, the aliens beamed back – annihilating people, buildings, and cities,” she said.

“Regardless of the aliens’ intent, fearful people would become more fearful and peaceful people more peaceful. Some would loot, some would pray, while others would mix another cocktail,“ she added.

But what if the aliens had good intentions? Lynen considered the possibility of some sort of camaraderie developing between humans and aliens, but ultimately doesn’t think such altruism could last long. “We’d present our motives as altruistic – the aliens would make the cover of Time, be knighted and be given the keys to cities, until, that is, we see something of theirs that we want – even if it was only an idea – we’d still want to call it our own,” she said, adding, “We'd take what they have and need, and then try to sell it back to them.”

To glean more insight into how humans might react, Lynen drew on periods from history when there have been “alien” arrivals. She mentioned the Spaniards and the Aztecs. “At first the Spaniards were greeted as gods by the Aztecs. But had the Aztecs correctly perceived the threat, they may have been able to overpower the outnumbered Spaniards instead of becoming enslaved by them,” she said.

Alluding to a non-mainstream belief, she said, “There are people who believe that humans were engineered by aliens as a slave labor force – that ancient Samarian texts, scripture and myth support that theory – and that “Our Creator” is only another intelligent life form.” Expanding on this theme, she said, “Some of the mythological creatures are also thought to be the offspring of aliens (Nephilim) mating with early humans and that there are alien life forms living among us to this day, manipulating us with mind control towards some nefarious end.”

Lynen does not believe in God. Asked why God might create such a vast universe if the only beneficiaries are those on our own planet, she said, “Any creator of the Universe should be beyond our comprehension - the more we try to define it, the further we get from the truth. Defining it humanizes and diminishes it.”

Looking at the longer term impact, Lynen said, “It wouldn’t take too many generations for paradigms to shift. All those born after the discovery of life elsewhere would filter their perceptions through it. No longer would history be relative to B.C/ A.D. or B.C.E./C.E., but instead, another acronym would quickly come into use, separating life before the discovery, and after.” She concluded, “The discovery of intelligent life would undoubtedly change our perception of what God is.”

And how might life on Earth be defined within the context of the Universe? I wondered. “Both secular and religious people can agree on one thing and that is the concept of no beginning and no end. Religions call it eternity, but too often focus less on the life we have – that has a beginning and an end, and more on the indefinite. Life on Earth should be enough,” she said.

“Thank God for scientists!” she exclaimed. “They also accept the concept of eternity, but call it infinity and use it in math problems that have nothing to do with the Ether, unless it involves traveling through it,” she continued.

“Before I sleep at night, I often try to imagine infinite space. I imagine myself reduced to a grain of sand, and then I imagine my neighborhood, my town, my state, my country, and my continent…reducing each of them in turn to a grain of sand and I keep going--bigger and then smaller--until all that defines the Universe is a grain of sand – so, vastness then becomes more comprehensible, but reversing the process – finding the beginning is…well, impossible.”

“What I do enjoy considering, though, is that the infinite provides infinite possibilities – and really, that should be proof enough that other intelligent life has to exist. If there is an infinite before and an infinite after, then anything can and has happened,” she concluded.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Power of Words

Words – at first glance they are just groups of characters on a page, but when our thoughts are translated into emotions they have the power to inspire. Words are very important to us.

When used to good effect in a well-formed structure your self-confidence can improve; but when used negatively you can be tricked by the power of words. They can be used to twist your thinking and to manipulate.

There are so many words in the English language and a myriad ways of saying the same thing, so choosing the right word(s) matters. Often it’s all too easy to use too many words when fewer might be better. Alluding to this, Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

Your vocabulary can reveal much about you. Consider: Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech.”

And do pay attention to what you say. It is worth remembering the words of 17th century English poet, Wentworth Dillon, who said, “Words once spoken can never be recall’d.”

Also beware of platitudes; instead, try to find new words. Write them down. Incorporate them into your next speech or conversation and better communicate your thoughts. Be clear and direct and you’ll help eliminate filler words such as um, er, like, or you know.

Use what you say to lift yourself up above the crowd; but be careful not to lose your audience by overusing unfamiliar words.

Think of the future, not just of the present.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Frozen Travels

This past Thursday a friend mentioned something to me about a film festival taking place in Winona this weekend. It doesn’t take much for me to heed the call of the open road, and after doing a little research I decided to go. I’ve taken a handful of road trips since the summer though it’s been a while since I went alone.

I had offered to drop off a friend at the airport (very) early Saturday morning and after doing so headed for Highway 61, the air temperature a bone-chilling minus 5 Fahrenheit (minus 20 Celsius). As dawn broke I drove past frozen fields, the sun’s early light giving them an appearance like polished marble. The land, locked in a frozen winter embrace, is asleep, but still breathes its magic.

I love to start Saturday mornings listening to Blue Grass Saturday Morning and today was no exception. One song mentioned being up before the rooster crows. I’m sure I was though I didn’t hear him in South Minneapolis.

My first stop was Redwing where I found a restaurant, Liberty’s, just opening its doors. It was the sort of locally-owned, rooted-in-the-community type of place I love. Coming into town I had spotted a YMCA and anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised to read that after breakfast I decided to go there and work out. On the treadmill, with a view of the Mississippi in the distance, I got talking to my neighbor, Rocky. We chatted for a while and she suggested I visit a place in Wabasha to watch the eagles, and a coffee shop in Winona. Good things to know.

A little further along 61 I drove past Hok-Si-La where five months ago I camped, and then past Lake Pepin, now frozen solid, where on that same trip I sailed at night on a yacht, on one of my most memorable nights of 2009.

Then onto Wabasha and, at Rocky’s suggestion, the National Eagle Center. Looking through binoculars I watched a handful of eagles perched in a tree on the Wisconsin side of the river. Suddenly one of them left his perch, swooped, circled and danced low over the river, and then -- soaring higher on the lifting wind -- returned to the tree. I wish I could fly like an eagle: Drifting. Circling. Dipping. Freedom.

Next stop: Winona. I arrived at the college campus where the Frozen River Film Festival had attracted hundreds of people. I saw two films: the first, Surfing 50 States, a film about two Australian friends who, armed with their surfboards and a beat up ice cream van for transportation, attempt to surf in all 50 US states; the second, Kashmir, a short documentary on that region and its people as seen through the eyes of a visiting American traveler. Time didn’t allow but I had wanted to see a documentary about an overweight 55 year old Slovene who attempts to swim the length of the Amazon while consuming two bottles of red wine a day even when swimming. Insane. But what a character!

After visiting the Acoustic Café (the coffee shop suggestion) I headed back to the cities. I arrived in Minneapolis close to midnight, my senses nourished by the change of scenery. It had been a full day but seeing something new is always good for my soul.